Rethinking the history of the Aryan paradigm

Christopher Hutton
University of Hong Kong

My involvement with this topic began when I observed that the notion of a superior ‘Aryan race’, which functions in the English-speaking world as a near-universal shorthand for Nazi ideology, has no clear counterpart in the actual theories of Nazi ideologues. The term arische Rasse (‘Aryan race’) is not to be found in Nazi-era sources; the term used is arisches Volk (‘Aryan people’). In fact both academics and officials in the Nazi state rejected categorically the idea that ‘Aryan’ could be used to designate a racial identity. While the term arisch had immense ideological power in the public sphere in Germany between 1933 and 1945, it belonged, as far as race theorists were concerned, to the study of language and culture (Hutton 2005). The use of the phrase ‘Aryan race’ in English language sources derives from translating Volk (‘people’) as ‘race’, and then reading into the translated term ‘race’ a form of bio-racial essentialism. While ‘race’ (Rasse) was indeed a central concept in Nazi Germany, its actual status, and relationship to the concept of Volk, was the subject of complex and contentious debate. Despite the ubiquity of the term, the history of the Aryan paradigm has yet to be written. The most comprehensive guide to the early textual history of the term ‘Aryan’ remains that produced by a Nazi scholar, Hans Siegert (1941/42), but over the past twenty-five years a series of detailed intellectual histories and themed volumes that touch on the Aryan question have been published.The issue here however is not simply the correcting of a misleading translation or the creation of a historical narrative, but the reconceptualization of the Aryan paradigm, and, as a corollary, the political history of linguistic theorizing.

‘Aryan’ (in German Arier, arisch; French aryen) is understood today as an ideologically loaded synonym for ‘white’. It is irrevocably associated with racial bigotry, white supremacism, and, above all, with anti-Semitism and Nazism. In 1907 the Aryans were hailed as ‘the most masterful, the most enduring in race vitality’ (Widney 1907, II: 352), and one could fill many volumes with similar quotations. Racist fringe organizations such as Aryan Nations and the Aryan Brotherhood testify to the continuing potency of the label. Yet ‘Aryan’ has also stood for unity and shared origins, notably the common inheritance of the Indians and the British—though this unity was imagined within the framework of colonial paternalism. It is the synonym of ‘Indo-European’, an uncontroversial term used by linguists today in the classification of the world’s languages into ‘families’. It has also been used to mean approximately ‘Hindu’, as in the title of Sir Bhagavat Simhaji’s A Short History of Aryan Medical Science (1896). In India today, Arya is an unremarkable personal name, and is used in the titles of shops and businesses, e.g. Arya (or Aryan) Restaurant. The country name ‘Iran’ is often understood to be equivalent to ‘Aryan’.

The Aryan paradigm contains minimally the postulation of a reconstructed original or ‘proto’ language (now known in linguistics as ‘proto-Indo-European’). The recognition by Sir William Jones (1746-1794) that ‘Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin’ must ‘have sprung from some common source’ is the generally accepted origin of this concept (Jones 1799: 26). But the paradigm frequently extends to the making of wider claims about the existence of an original community of speakers, an original homeland, subsequent migrations and conquests, worldview, material and spiritual culture, and racial type. The most important ideological off-shoot of the Aryan paradigm is now known as ‘Aryan invasion theory’ (AIT). This is a narrative with a simple set of tropes: a superior invader, entering the territory of present-day India from the northwest, conquered an indigenous people. That conquest led to a flowering of a highly advanced civilization, but eventually the elite intermarried with the indigenous population and this led to decadence and decline. The Aryan conquest is generally dated to around 1500 BCE, but every detail of this theory has been the subject of intense debate and it remains a matter of controversy in India today.

For intellectual history, the term ‘Aryan’ (and its synonyms and near-synonyms ‘Japhetic’, ‘Indo-European’, ‘Indo-Germanic’, etc.) is in itself endlessly problematic. But ‘Aryan’ has also been combined with complex and shifting terms such as ‘language’, ‘people’, ‘folk’, ‘race’, ‘civilization’, ‘culture’ and their variants in European languages, such as German Volk, Rasse, French race, peuple, etc. The term ‘Aryan race’ is now the most prominent and notorious of these combinations, but depending on the context, ‘race’ might imply anything from a biological category to a nation. If we look at the period around 1800, where the basic elements of this paradigm came together, we encounter a historiographical puzzle, namely the place of Sir William Jones in the story. Jones has been misidentified as the origin the Indo-European hypothesis and modern historical-comparative linguistics. Long before Jones we can find recognition of similarities between Asian and European languages (see Olender 1994), and in terms of methodology and postulated affinities, the model of human diversity proposed by Jones bears no relation to later nineteenth century frameworks.

British colonial scholarship was important in the chain of intellectual influence that led to the German Romantics’ shift of focus from Persia to India. It was Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829), though, who generalized the term ‘Aryan’ and made it stand for the ancestors of the Germans (Schlegel 1819). Schlegel was writing against the background of the Napoleonic conquests, and his concern is with the historical grounding and ‘lineage’ of the Germans. He is the arguably true founder of the Aryan paradigm in its modern, ideological sense. Key elements in this paradigm include: the evocation of an empowering link between an ancient people and the modern Germans; the importance of the scholarly imaginary in the creation of modern German nationalism; and the centrality of language. The notion that language and difference is the essence of the nation (Volk) arises in the political and ideological aftermath of the Napoleonic conquests and represents a projected or ideal vision (Germany was literally an ‘imagined community’, Anderson 1991). It raises at the very outset the problem of internal difference within the Volk (see Bauman and Briggs 2003: 163ff., Zantop 1997). The German intellectual response to the Napoleonic Empire is the first anti/post-colonial movement in the modern sense, and it was an intellectual project long before it became a plausible political one.

Another figure whose role in the Aryan paradigm is in need of reassessment is F. Max Müller (1823-1900). The conventional narrative of Müller’s career is that, having argued for the existence of an Aryan race, and thereby confused language and race, he renounced this in favour of the more progressive position that there was no blood unity associated with the Aryan identity (von See 1994: 144). This is a common trope in sketches of Müller’s intellectual development: ‘Müller […] ultimately backed away from the often anti-Semitic identification of Aryan with a race rather than a language, but his awakening came too late’ (Painter 2010: 196). Bryant notes that Müller made an unpopular defence of a profound form of kinship between Indians and their British rulers: ‘They would not have it, they would not believe that there could be any community of origin between the people of Athens and Rome, and the so-called Niggers of India’ (Müller 1883: 28, Bryant 2001: 22). Yet Müller is then seen as retracting this view of the common lineage or blood of the ‘English soldier’ and the ‘dark Bengali’: ‘Needless to say, his retraction went largely unnoticed, and the history books recorded the earlier Max Müller who, for a quarter of a century, had contributed to the idea of a common racial Aryan ancestry based on a common Aryan tongue’ (Bryant 2001: 33).

Müller’s evocation of kinship between Indians and Europeans was a continuation of Biblical universalism, associated with ideas of paternalistic colonialism (Leopold 1974, Trautmann 1997: 15-16), and with the decline of Indian culture from a lost ‘Aryan paradise’. If Müller changed position at all it was to affirm the position of the racial anthropologists against the Biblically-inspired universalism of the philological paradigm. Müller rightly saw Darwinism and human evolutionary biology as a powerful threat to the Biblical-philological paradigm from which his work sprang. But there was no way to disentangle all the narrative threads that lay behind terms like ‘Celtic’, ‘German’, ‘Teutonic’, and ‘Aryan’. Müller’s later statements on these matters are best described as a fantastic muddle. Müller wanted to disassociate himself from the use of philology for racist ends and from theories of polygenesis that also invoked language; yet ironically the drawing of a sharp distinction between language and race meant that there could be no authentic kinship between the ‘English soldier’ and the ‘dark Bengali’. Müller came to emphasize the separation of linguistic and racial criteria (Müller 1888: 120): ‘To me an ethnologist who speaks of an Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar.’ But no race theorist in Nazi Germany would have disagreed.

One key ‘image schema’ in the Aryan paradigm and historical-comparative linguistics is the genealogical tree. With its roots in the Biblical genealogies of Genesis, the representation of historical relationships in the form of a family tree offered a universal model for the visual representation of human kinship and genealogical affinity (see Bouquet 1996). The ‘family tree’ constitutes a powerful mode of representation for historical sequence, change (from less complex to more complex, from fewer to more categories), and deep affinities. The model functions as a totalizing mode of representation, in that as a diagrammatic form it leaves no space for non-branching or non-linear relationships. The genealogical tree successfully crossed the boundary between the premodern and the modern and also entered the public imaginary as the default way of understanding historically grounded kinship relations of many different kinds. It thus enabled a specific kind of tunnel vision in terms of affinity and ‘common origins’.

The family tree model is inseparable from the classification of languages into distinct language families, and the conceptualization of human languages as partaking in human kinship ties. The logic of the genealogical tree was that speakers of ‘different languages’ could be found right next to each other in geographical space, but be adjudged remotely related or not at all. The model imposed a radically abstract system of representation onto the continua of experienced language and local self-understandings. Though the status of the ‘hierarchical classification scheme’ remains a matter of debate and controversy today in evolutionary biology (Doolittle 2009), the family tree model of language affinity entered educated common sense knowledge about the history of languages, and structures understandings of linguistic and ethnic kinship at many levels to this day. By 1900 the question was how the family tree of the world’s Völker could be reconciled with the genealogy of the world’s races. This way of framing questions of identity fed paranoia among political and intellectual elites that the world was hybridizing and ‘mongrelizing’ in a most frightening and irreversible way.

In the Western tradition, language has been the primary means of identifying or classifying groups and tracing their historical relationships. To understand the Aryan paradigm we need to revisit the primary texts of a range of disciplines; in particular we need to read the history of racial thinking (in its widest sense) alongside the history of the language sciences.


1. See for example Arvidsson (2006), Ballantyne (2002), Benes (2008), Breckenridge and van der Beer (1993), Bryant (2001), Bryant and Patton (2001), Errington (2008), Figueira (2002), Goodrick-Clark (1992), Kaiwar and Mazumdar (2003), Marchand (2009), Maw (1990), McGetchin et al (2004), Murti (2001), Thapar et al (2007), Thapar (2008), Trautmann (1997, 2005, 2006). The classic account is Poliakov (1974).


Arvidsson, Stefan. 2006. Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ballantyne, Tony. 2002. Orientalism and Race: Aryanism in the British Empire. London: Palgrave.

Bauman, Richard and Charles Brigs. 2003. Voices of Modernity: Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Benes, Tuska. 2009. In Babel’s Shadow: Language, Philology, and the Nation in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Bouquet, Mary. 1996. ‘Family trees and their affinities: the visual imperative of the genealogical diagram’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2:1.43-66.

Breckenridge, Carol A. and van der Beer, Peter, eds. 1993. Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bryant, Edwin. 2001. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: the Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bryant, Edwin and Laurie Patton, eds. 2005. The Indo-Aryan Controversy: Evidence and Inference in Indian History. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Doolittle, W. Ford. 2009. ‘The practice of classification and the theory of evolution, and what the demise of Charles Darwin’s tree of life hypothesis means for both of them’. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 364.2221-2228.

Errington, Joseph. 2008. Linguistics in a Colonial World: A Study of Language, Meaning and Power. Oxford: Blackwell.

Figueira, Dorothy Matilda. 2002. Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorizing Authority through Myths of Identity. Albany: SUNY Press.

Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas. 1992. The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology: The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany, 1890-1935. New York: University Press.

Hutton, Christopher. 2005. Race and the Third Reich. Cambridge: Polity.

Jones, Sir William. 1799. ‘On the Hindus’. The Third Anniversary Discourse, Delivered 2 February, 1786. The Works of Sir William Jones. Vol. 1. London: G.G. and J. Robinson, pp. 19-34.

Kaiwar, Vasant and Sucheta Mazumdar, eds. 2003. Antinomies of Modernity: Essays on Race, Orient, Nation. Durham: Duke.

Leopold, Jean. 1974. ‘British applications of the Aryan theory of race to India, 1850-1870’. The English Historical Review 89.578-603.

Marchand, Suzanne L. 2009. German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race and Scholarship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maw, Martin (1990) Visions of India: Fulfilment Theology, the Aryan race theory, and the work of British Protestant missionaries in India. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

McGetchin, Douglas T. , Peter J. Park and D.R. SarDesai (2004) Sanskrit and ‘Orientalism’. Delhi: Manohar.

Müller, Friedrich Max. 1888. Biographies of Words and the Home of the Aryas. London: Longmans, Green, and co.

Murti, Kamakshi P. 2001. India: The Seductive and Seduced “Other” of German Orientalism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Olender, Maurice. 1994. ‘Europe, or how to Escape Babel’. History and Theory 33.5-25.

Painter, Nell Irvin. 2010. The History of White People. New York: Norton.

Poliakov, Léon. 1974. The Aryan myth: a History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe. Trans. Edmund Howard. London: Chatto Heinemann.

See, Klaus von. 1994. Barbar, Germane, Arier. Heidelberg: C. Winter.

Schlegel, Friedrich. 1819. Review of J. G. Rhode, Über den Anfang unserer Geschichte und die letzte Revolution der Erde, Breslau, 1819. Jahrbücher der Literatur VIII: 413ff.

Siegert, Hans. 1941/42. ‘Zur Geschichte der Begriffe “Arier” und “arisch”’. Wörter und Sachen: Zeitschrift für indogermanische Sprachwissenschaft, Volksforschung und Kulturgeschichte. Neue Folge 4. 73-99.

Simhaji’s, Sir Bhagavat. 1896. A Short History of Aryan Medical Science. London: Macmillan.

Thapar, Romila. 2008. The Aryan: Recasting Constructs. Gurgaon: Three Essays Collective.

Thapar, Romila et al. 2007. India: Historical Beginnings and the Concept of the Aryan. Essays. New Delhi: National Book Trust.

Trautmann, Thomas. 2006. Languages and Nations: The Dravidian Proof in Colonial Madras. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Trautmann, Thomas, ed. 2005. The Aryan Debate. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Trautmann, Thomas.1997. Aryans and British India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Widney, Joseph. 1907. Race Life of the Aryan Peoples. 2 vols. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

Zantop, Suzanne. 1997. Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870. Durham: Duke University Press.

How to cite this post

Hutton, Christopher. 2013. ‘Rethinking the history of the Aryan paradigm’. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Article, Germany, History, Linguistics
3 comments on “Rethinking the history of the Aryan paradigm
  1. joanleo says:

    Hi Chris:

    Thank you for this interesting article. You might want to change my name from “Jean Leopold” to “Joan Leopold.”



  2. Roger Croston says:

    This is a very interesting and extremely useful article when researching the Ernst Schaefer Tibet Expedition 1938/1939 about which so many fantasies and far fetched conspiracy theories have been written that it was searching for the racial origins of Aryans on the roof of the world. There is not one jot of original evidence for such absurd claims.

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